Wednesday, August 13, 2008


So much of our national attention is showered on China right now: our best athletes are there competing, our channel guides are chock full of Olympic events and it’s all the media can seem to talk about. Its official, China is the “it” thing right now.

If you keep up with the news, you'll notice how feature articles outnumber simple news stories. While there’s definitely news coming out of Beijing, what’s interesting is that the media seems to be just as preoccupied with understanding China as we are.

I, like many Americans, find myself struggling to understand China in the midst of this year’s summer Olympic games. I’m not sure we as a nation gave China or Beijing much thought until recently, but now the Olympics are here so we’ve started to wonder.

The myriad articles leading up the Summer Olympic Games can basically be put into two categories:
1. The Communist Chinese government and how the Olympics have or have not changed things.
2. Now that we’re curious, what we Americans should know about China.

Regarding Category #1, it’s pretty clear that China has a big chip on its shoulder. For example, just last week President Bush denounced China’s human rights violations before travelling to Beijing and stated that he wanted his presence at the games to help draw attention to the issue. The Chinese Foreign Ministry fired back that he’d "rudely interfered in China's internal affairs." We’ve also gotten very mixed messages about China in the past few months; there’s been the country’s loud and very public tirade over the Dalai Lama and Tibetan protesters, along with their uncharacteristically humane response to May’s Sichuan Earthquake. Now that China has our attention for the Olympics, we find ourselves asking: what is their deal? The best answer I’ve found was this article in the Toronto Globe and Mail. I am half-Canuck, so we have to invoke the Globe and Mail.
“Which spirit of nation will prevail in rise to greatness?”

Category #2 has been mainly news and feature articles providing a firsthand perspective of life in China. This is probably to help us see what’s changed and what hasn’t since the country opened its doors to the west after Nixon’s visit in 1972. If you’re up for a read, check out the LA times feature “The Beijing she knew is gone; in its place, the Beijing she loves,” a very well-written personal piece by one of the paper’s foreign correspondents.

Americans seem to have suddenly developed a voracious appetite for information about China, whether it’s a narrative, a bunch of photos, or even cookbooks, as mentioned in this LA Times book review. Here’s a brief quote:

“Of course, the economic benefits of the Olympics are not exclusive to China; in fact, if the number of new books on China is any indication, American publishers, like Beijing real estate developers, have decided that Olympics+China=$$$. Cookbooks, business books, political books, poetry, books about Chinese food and, of course, travel books . . . all have poured out in a torrent”

So why are we so curious now? It seems to me that our rush for information comes from a collective realization that we really don’t understand the country where the Olympics are being held. Why? I doubt many Americans, especially those who were around for Nixon’s visit and Tienanmen Square, feel they can relate to the Chinese people at all. We live in Capitalist, corporate-driven America and they live in Communist China. No matter how profit-driven and modernized the country has become, it’s still China. Plus, they always value the community above the individual—a perspective we Americans don’t know anything about.

Even though everything we buy seems to be made in China we haven’t quite figured them out yet. Besides, how can we be expected to keep up when Chinese society is so rapidly changing?

I think we’re right to acknowledge that we don’t know anything about being Chinese. Most of us have no clue what it’s like to live in a Communist country. I certainly don’t. Before the Olympics, the only meaningful perspective I’d heard was from Ted Gup, my college journalism mentor who spent some time in China while working for The Washington Post. He would elaborate on the experience of living in a country that doesn’t have free speech or freedom of the press. For a journalist, this was particularly jarring. I remember him being struck by the reality that none of the people he interacted with daily were allowed access to independent news. All these people had one source of information about their world, and that source was nowhere near unbiased.

So it seems we’ve pretty much resigned to accept our ignorance about China. It’s a country completely unlike our own, so the best we can do is to a read a few books and buy a wok. But are we right? Listen to this perspective from a LA Times Letter to the Editor published on August 10th, 2008:

“Before we use the Olympics as a tool to brazenly criticize life in China, why don’t we first tend our own garden?

While China has pollution, American’s carbon emissions per capita are many times that of China’s. While China can’t play well with others, the United States fights an unpopular war and is ridiculed around the world. China clearly should not violate human right—oh wait, we wiretap civilians while we torture and detain suspected terrorists without a fair trial.

China today isn’t a rose garden, but why can’t we as Americans be half as fervent about improving America as we are about bettering China?”

-Eric Chow
Walnut, California

So maybe as much as we don’t want to think about it, we do know a little about what it’s like to be Chinese after all. What about our own human rights violations? Just take this heartbreaking story in today’s New York Times, “Ill and in Pain, Detainee Dies in U.S. Hands.” Here is an excerpt describing two similar cases:

“In March, the federal government admitted medical negligence in the death of Francisco Castaneda, 36, a Salvadoran whose cancer went undiagnosed in a California detention center as he was repeatedly denied a biopsy on a painful penile lesion. In May, The New York Times chronicled the death of Boubacar Bah, 52, a Guinean tailor who suffered a skull fracture and brain hemorrhages in the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey; records show he was left in an isolation cell without treatment for more than 13 hours.”

Aren’t things like that only supposed to happen in places like China?

In America, we don’t jail people for criticizing our leaders. We also have the freedom to assemble and practice any religion we choose. But our government has also suspended the writ of habeas corpus for its own convenience and we torture too, remember?

Also like the Chinese, we Americans seem to be conflicted about the oppressive activities of our government. Both countries seem to be in some amount of denial, and both of our governments play a role by not informing us enough to know for sure what our reality is. Maybe we have more information than the Chinese—our news outlets aren’t state run, investigative reporting isn’t illegal here, we have the Public Interest Declassification Act—but we certainly aren’t given the big picture. It’s just in China we call it Communist and here we call it “classified.”

Yes, it’s unfortunate that we may find common ground in the negative, but perhaps just thinking about these things can give us a perspective on China that we’ll never see in a travel book.

1 comment:

Ric Storms said...

I had a very interesting experience learning about China, not because of the ad nauseum Olympics coverage, but from an anthropology class about 2 years ago. I studied under Charlotte Ikels at Case Western Reserve University, whose specialty is on the cultural effects of Chinese modernization. From what I learned, making any generalization about China will inevitably be wrong, as the country is as vast culturally as it is geographically. For example the different "dialects" that exist in China are phonologically more distinct from each other than the Romance languages. I must take exception that the Chinese value the community more than individual achievement. A look at China's modernization reveals that their citizenry is just as interested in self-advancement as their family. Migrant labor is one of the biggest issues in modern China, as swarms of rural youths come and work in the rapidly growing cities. These migrants are much like our the illegal immigrants in this country, unregistered, working for low wages but making more than they would at home. The money made is generally used on personal expenses, or saved to provide a way to create a new home for them when they do return home. This money is not sent home to parents as our stereotype of the dutiful Chinese offspring might suppose. Also China has a burgeoning stock market, delivering to China its first millionaires. When the communal farming was discontinued after the death of Mao, individuals began taking parcels for individual use, and any suggestion by the government to resume communal farming is met with harsh resistance.

I do think that the criticism laid at the feet of China is a little short sighted, at least historically. While I do think the human rights abuses are horrific, many of the supposed economic advantages we Americans complain about are hypocritical. China is able to propel is stupendous industrial growth by cheap migrant labor, just as the U.S. did during the Industrial Revolution. We complain of China's rampant pollution, and while they do have the unique opportunity to build their infrastructure around more eco-friendly methods, the Western world was responsible for putting out so much soot that we turned the trees around factories black. And while America has never been so regressive in terms of labor relations, unions were essentially illegal in this country until the twentieth century and we do have our own history of labor violence (the Pinkerton's anyone... to say nothing of the Harding administration). To criticize China in its economic policy while we profited from very similar ones is historical hypocrisy. We must also remember that just because the cultural norms of China put more emphasis on family, it is not inherently Communist, and anyone who insists on that is uninformed.